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CBS Tackles 1 Scandal, Is Fined for a 2nd

Just as the network names a panel to look into its Bush Guard story, the FCC demands $550,000 for Super Bowl breast-baring debacle.

September 23, 2004|Josh Getlin, Elizabeth Jensen and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Less than an hour after CBS named an independent panel Wednesday to probe the scandal over its flawed "60 Minutes" reporting, the Federal Communications Commission hit the network with the largest fine in its history over its infamous Super Bowl halftime broadcast.

As home to two explosive media controversies this year, the nation's most watched network has found itself fighting image battles on multiple fronts -- and in the same week that CBS scored its poorest Emmy awards showing since 1954.

Compounding CBS' troubles has been the network's tendency to dig in its heels and deny there was a problem when questions arose, media observers said. Unlike some of its competitors, they said, CBS has been slow to resolve controversies.

Network officials initially dismissed criticism of the "60 Minutes" piece about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, for example, and didn't issue an apology until 12 days after the Sept. 8 broadcast.

They reacted similarly to the political furor over CBS' "The Reagans" movie project last October. Conservatives were incensed over early glimpses of the not-so-flattering portrayal of former President Reagan and wife, Nancy, and the network eventually dropped plans to broadcast the movie, shunting it to Showtime, a cable subsidiary.

The network did, however, apologize promptly in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident during the Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime broadcast. The FCC, nonetheless, fined the network $550,000.

"We all make mistakes," said Dee Davis, president of the Whitesburg, Ky.-based Center for Rural Studies, which criticized CBS over its planned reality show called the "Real Beverly Hillbillies." "The real danger comes when you can't admit it," he added.

The two-man panel appointed by CBS to probe the "60 Minutes" broadcast is comprised of former Republican U.S. Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, former president and chief executive of Associated Press.

The network said in a statement that it would investigate how the National Guard story got on the air. The Sept. 8 broadcast featured unverifiable documents purportedly written by Bush's commander; the material was provided by a former Guard official who lied to the network about where he obtained them.

Thornburgh and Boccardi will also review the actions of producer Mary Mapes, who put her chief source on the story in contact with a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry before the story was aired. The panel's findings will be made public.

CBS officials apologized this week for broadcasting the story, which alleged that Bush had received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard, and had violated military procedures. The story, which was delivered by "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather, has become a hot issue in the 2004 presidential race.

Thornburgh's appointment to the panel raised some eyebrows in media circles because, in addition to serving under Reagan, he served President George H.W. Bush, with whom Rather had a heated on-air run-in in 1988, when Bush was vice president. Rather's grilling of Bush is one of the key elements cited by those who have charged over the years that Rather and CBS News have a liberal bias.

A CBS News spokeswoman declined to comment on how the panel was appointed. And CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who selected the panel along with CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, wasn't available.

One network executive said Thornburgh, a former governor of Pennsylvania, was chosen because of his extensive investigative experience, noting that he is widely respected on both sides of the political aisle. The two were also chosen because they had no connection to CBS, the executive added.

Thornburgh works as counsel in the Washington law offices of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, which will also assist in the investigation. His assistant said he wasn't giving any interviews.

Boccardi could not be reached for comment.

Heyward said in a Monday interview that he wanted the panel's results within "weeks, not months," but CBS executives have also insisted that they don't want to do anything precipitous.

One complicating factor is the upcoming election, less than six weeks away. Rather is scheduled to anchor the network's coverage on election day, but that could prove awkward for CBS News if he was criticized by the panel's findings just before the high-profile night.

News division officials put a positive spin on Wednesday's announcement of the investigating panel, stressing their desire to get the full story out and put the embarrassing disclosures behind them. But the network was decidedly cool in reacting to the FCC decision, vowing to consider all of its options, including an appeal of the $550,000 fine.

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